Exit Strategy

'Black Hawk Down' Gets in and out of Somalia With No Questions Asked

The confluence of forces depicted in the war movie Black Hawk Down is so incredible as to defy the word history. In 1991 the militarized gangs that gained power in Somalia after the downfall of dictator Muhammad Said Barre collapsed into civil war. The ensuing struggle for preeminence involved the choking-off of relief efforts by the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid; as the West was being deluged with nightly news images of 300,000 starving people, its conscience, still stinging from what had happened in the Balkans, propelled it into action. Operation Restore Hope, which ended in the deaths of 18 American servicemen and an ignominious retreat from Somalia, is best known today as the lesson from which the Bush administration took its Afghan orders--the first rule being, Make America know that victory comes at a human cost. It's also regarded as the folly that emboldened Osama bin Laden--the thing that made him realize that "America is a paper tiger."

The dizzying array of lose-lose scenarios presented as options for American humanitarian engagement makes our police action in Vietnam look almost endearingly clear-cut. On the one hand, the indigenous resistance to "colonialist" aid groups--combined with the actual racketeering of many such organizations, and topped by the do-or-die territorialism of Somalia's regional militias--made intervention seem insanely futile. On the other, those of the left who protested our "racist occupation" and praised "the Somali resistance" in 1993 must now gaze into the pit of the post-America, post-U.N. Somalia: a Boschian hell as ferocious as the one we first stumbled into. Its agonies are never-ending: Just a month ago, a U.N. report warned that in southern Somalia, a half-million people are again nearing starvation. And there is talk that Somalia will soon be the next arena for the "war on terrorism."

Sins of omission and commission present themselves with equal force. Forget the "exit strategy" for a moment: Where is the blueprint for nation-building in a place where the genuine experience of a nation hasn't existed in anyone's lifetime? What are the inherited forces--cultural and economic--that would make the one country in Africa that's unified by a shared language appear the most fractious of all? And why were the United States' flawed relief programs received more bitterly than Somalia's own home-brewed gangland corruption?

If the entire foreign-policy apparatus of the American government was unable to answer or even to articulate these questions, how can we expect a Jerry Bruckheimer movie to do so? Black Hawk Down, about the bloodbath that ended the Somalia initiative, issues a terse no comment right from its opening scenes. A liberal, idealistic army Ranger (Josh Hartnett) mutters something about "making a difference," and a buddy tells him, "Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that other shit goes out the window. You just wanna figure out how to get home." Hartnett's character and a team of Rangers and Delta Force special-operations guys are dispatched to abduct two of Aidid's henchmen in a densely populated commercial block of Mogadishu. As they say in movie trailers: It was supposed to be a routine mission... But when Aidid's sympathizers are alerted to the incoming Americans, they manage to shoot down a patrolling Black Hawk helicopter before the raid is completed. The movie is mainly about the 18-hour efforts of the rest of the team to rescue the downed Americans before the city's inhabitants converge on the fallen men and tear them apart.

From the get-go, director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Ken Nolan characterize the American servicemen in quick, shallow, likable strokes. There's Ewan MacGregor, his Scottish accent serving as a symbol of his earthy good humor, as a Ranger stuck in the back making coffee; there's Tom Sizemore, the same proletarian lump he was in Saving Private Ryan, time-warped to 1993 as a Ranger team leader who's all sighs and rolling eyes; and there's Eric Bana, the great actor from the Australian Chopper, in the bit part of a Special Forces guy who looks like a killing machine. We sit with these fellows as they nervously laugh at The Jerk playing on an airplane hangar VCR; we watch a young father draw children's-book illustrations for his kids; we listen to the men rag on one another, and we notice how clean-cut and straight-arrow they are. Then General Garrison (Sam Shepard) sends them on their mission. And then we watch them die.

 

Oh, and there's one other thing we notice about them: They're all white (save for one black Ranger, seemingly added as an afterthought). Whether this is historically accurate or not, I can't say--but it certainly puts the audience in an uncomfortable position even before the shooting starts. And when the mayhem begins, you really start to writhe. As the head of the Aidid button men, Razaaq Adoti wears mirrored shades and chews gum with a sexy-psychotic sneer: He looks like a Detroit auto worker sassing the Man in a Seventies blaxploitation movie. And when Aidid's crew captures Mike Durant, Adoti gets to deliver a speech about how the white Americans should never have come: "You think you can bring American democracy here--at the end of a gun? There will be no peace without victory. There will be nothing but killing here." (He even mocks Durant for not smoking: "You Americans lead such dull, bland, uninteresting lives!")

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